Watknee’s Cream Stout Homebrewing Kit from Midwest Supplies 

Watknee's Cream Stout Brewing Kit from Midwest Supplies

We were recently approached by Midwest Supplies about reviewing one of their many, many brewing kits. While we haven’t purchased from this particular homebrewing and winemaking company before, I had heard good things about them, so I figured, sure! Plus it’d been awhile since we brewed, and even longer since using a kit.

Midwest has a very large selection—more than 100!—including kits that are good for beginner, intermediate and advanced homebrewers. I picked the Watknee’s Cream Stout kit, a clone of the British Watney’s Cream Stout. We’ve had some tough times with our own stout recipes, so we thought the kit might be good practice, and I’ve never worked with maltodextrin.

Watnee's Cream Stout Kit pieces

The kit arrived in a perfectly packed box—Midwest doesn’t mess around with unnecessary shipping materials! We received the key ingredients of DME, specialty grains, hops, yeast, maltodextrin … and we even got Irish moss, a muslin bag, and priming sugar for when we bottle! The instruction sheet has both a “quick” to-do list (for those of us familiar with brewing) and a longer set of instructions, which are quite thorough.

Box close up

I’m a sucker for design, but I really like the packaging Midwest uses for their kits. They use almost every available surface to communicate with the homebrewer, providing the kit’s info (ingredients, brewing info, etc.), a handy brewing calendar, and at least 4 different ways for customers to get a hold of Midwest if they have any questions.

Since we’re pretty busy through November, we’re looking to brew this kit in December, bottle before the New Year, and enjoy the stout in January … maybe for my 31st birthday party? So stay tuned!

Disclosure: I received a this homebrewing kit for free from Midwest Supplies. However, my opinions are my own.




Bottling Beers without Ending Your Relationship 

Sanitizing bottles in the dishwasherWhen it comes to homebrewing, a lot of people gripe about bottling: about how it’s messy or annoying or frustrating or how it totally ruins your day and leaves you yelling at your partner. Luckily for Ray and me, we’ve never had a major issue with bottling. We have a set procedure that we don’t stray from, and that helps a lot.

To give any of you fed-up homebrewers a hand, or for the newbies that are curious about how to get beer into a bottle effectively, here are 5 tips on how to keep bottling from driving you mad and ending your marriage.

1. Schedule your bottling day. While bottling when the whim hits isn’t necessarily a bad thing, actually putting it on your brewing calendar not only keeps you accountable (hello … we put off bottling a beer for nearly 3 months!), but it ensures that you make time for it and that you have the necessary supplies: bottles, caps and priming sugar.

2. Make sure you have enough bottles for the size of your batch. I know offhand that a 5 gallon batch of beer yields approximately 2 cases of 12 oz bottles, give or take. I also like to include a few 22 oz bottles in the mix, which means I often don’t need the full 48 bottles. Nonetheless, it never hurts to have extra bottles on hand. You can purchase cases of bottles at your LHBS (we’ve gotten them for $13/case) or recycle the craft beer bottles you consume.

3. Sanitize your bottles—the easy way! We take unlabeled, non-twist top bottles and place them on all the spokes in our dishwasher’s bottom level. The bottom can usually hold the full 48, but if necessary, you can poke some through the top rack, depending on your dishwasher.

We run a heavy load cycle without soap and turn on the heated dry. This is great because it’s pretty much hands-off, giving us time to transfer the beer from the fermenter to the bottling bucket, boil our priming sugar and sanitize our other equipment. Once the bottles are done, I repackage them into 6-pack cartons to make them easier to handle. (I realize not everyone has a dishwasher, but if you do, try this!)

4. Use a bottling checklist. This will keep you organized and less likely to forget something. We use the following list:

Bottling Check List
1. Calculate the number of bottles needed; remember, a 5 gallon batches yields approximately 2 cases of 12 oz bottles.
2. Sanitize all of the following:
• Bottles
• Bottling bucket
• Siphon
• Tubing
• Brew Spoon
• Sample-taker
• Bottling wand
3. Line up the following:
• Priming sugar (or DME if you prefer)
• Refractometer or hydrometer (for final gravity reading)
• Caps
• Capper
• Sharpie (to label caps)
• Empty beer cartons
4. Dissolve 4 oz priming sugar in 1 cup of water, bring to a boil for 5 minutes,?then let cool to room temperature.
5. Pour boiled sugar into the bottling bucket.
6. Carefully siphon beer into bottling bucket without splashing and introducing oxygen.
7. Gently stir the beer with the sanitized spoon to distribute sugar.
8. Take a sample for the specific gravity reading. Record reading from refractometer or hydrometer.
9. Attach tubing and bottling wand to the spigot.
10. Fill the bottles and place a cap on top.
11. Cap the bottles, placing them back into the cartons.
12. Label the caps and store in a cool, dry place. Try a bottle 2 weeks after conditioning. If not ready yet, try again in about a week or two.

5. Assign roles. For homebrewing, I handle the bottle sanitation in the dishwasher, priming sugar prep, filling the bottles, labeling the caps, stowing the cases and washing smaller items. Ray transfers the beer to the bottling bucket, sanitizes all the other equipment we use, caps the bottles, and does the bottle and fermenter cleanup. Once again, it helps to know who is doing what and stick to it!

Using these tips, Ray and I attack bottling with an assembly-line precision, all the while talking and singing along to our favorite tunes. Bottling day is never a tense, unpleasant experience for us, and it doesn’t need to be for anyone else!




Looking at the Bottom of the Glass: Oatmeal Stouts 

Oatmeal StoutI thought I’d take a moment to take a look at one of my favorite styles of beer since our carboys and most equipment for brewing have been packed up for the eventual move … now we just need to find a tenant and an adorable apartment to call out own! (More on that later)

Much like the oatmeal your mother encouraged you to eat during the winters of your childhood, oatmeal stouts have been described as “nutritional” in the past, especially for breastfeeding mothers (the practice of drinking stouts while lactating is still supported by many, as seen by a quick Google search).

But oatmeal stouts aren’t just for the ladies—mothers or otherwise—they are an excellent beer for anyone to drink and brew at home.

According to the BJCP Guidelines, oatmeal stouts are a subcategory of stouts (category 13) and have a medium-light to medium-full bodied, creamy mouth feel. Brewers can thank the oats for their beer’s mouthfeel; the grain’s addition to the brew kettle gives this type of stout its recognizable silky texture without adding too much sweetness.

Aroma is rich with coffee and roastiness—most often from the darker malts used, like black patent. Flavor mimics the aroma; oatmeal stouts are described as roasty, malty and sometimes chocolately, depending on the malt bill. Appearance is brownish-black, with a latte-colored head that can be thin-to-thick, depending on the glassware and pour.

Hops are not the stars of this beer, and should be selected to balance the malt; many brewers like to use East Kent Goldings, a traditional hop variety from the UK. More specifically, the IBUs for this style should range from 25-40 for a regular-strength (non-imperial) oatmeal stout.

The amount of oats used in each recipe differs, but most home brewers should shoot for 1-1.5 pounds of oats per 5 gallon batch. Also, something to note is John Palmer’s opinion on cooking oats before adding to the mash.

From his website:

Rolled and flaked oats have had their starches gelatinized (made soluble) by heat and pressure, and are most readily available as “Instant Oatmeal” in the grocery store. Whole oats and “Old Fashioned Rolled Oats” have not had the degree of gelatinization that Instant have had and must be cooked before adding to the mash. … Cook according to the directions on the box (but add more water) to ensure that the starches will be fully utilized.

If you’re not familiar with this style, it’s always a wise idea to try a few varieties from your local pub or liquor store first to decide what qualities you want to impart in your brew. Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout is a classic, pouring a deep brown-black with a thick, mocha-colored head and giving off coffee and roast in its nose. But if you’re looking for something a little out of the ordinary, then Stone Brewing Co.’s 12th Anniversary Ale would have done the trick (if you can still find a bottle hidden somewhere in a cellar). This ale was more commonly known as the Bitter Chocolate Oatmeal Stout, and it packs an intense flavor punch in the way of dark chocolate, coffee, and roastiness. According to the label, the 2007 hop shortage contributed to the genius of this beer because the brewers opted to use unsweetened chocolate from Chuao Chocolatier for most of this oatmeal stout’s bittering.

For novice homebrewers, it might be best to lean more toward the traditional angle of this style, but if you have a bit of a creative streak, go hell-bent for challenging the style’s guidelines and try adding chocolate, fruit, or even infusions of tea.




BeerCamp Philly 2011: Serving 10 Gallons to the Masses 

Photo by the ever talented and lovely Marissa, who writes the most excellent Food in Jars.

It seems like eons ago, but on June 4 Ray, my dearest friend Rach and I served nearly 10 gallons of Bathtub Brewery’s homebrewed beer to a crowd of beer enthusiasts. And it was AWESOME.

We joined the BeerCamp crew earlier in the year, meeting 1-2 times a month at IndyHall where we would taste each others beer, chat and slowly figure out how we wanted the event to turn out (though really, Kelani, Johnny, Dave and Alex were the logistical masterminds behind ALL of it…we just made the libations!)

And then the first weekend of June rolled around and we hauled 4 cases of our bottled beer into the patio/garden area of the Jamaican Jerk Hut on South Street. We iced down some bottles, poured chilled beer into mammoth pitchers … and then got to drinking our fellow brewers’ beers during the VIP Brewers Hour.

Mel and Rach serve Bathtub Brewery's homebrews at BeerCamp Philly

Mel and Rach behind the table, working the crowd. Gotta love Rach's "Say wha?" face.

The three of us worked seamlessly as a team, with 2 people pouring while the other either cracked open bottles, ran to get food, or took a bathroom break. Rach and I attracted quite the crowd from time to time, and it was funny to see guys’ reactions to the fact that I was a brewer, not just a “table babe.” Ray and I fielded a fair amount of questions, and even Rach picked up enough lingo to explain what she was serving. We’ll make a brewer of her yet!

We served the much hailed Bee Sting and a new beer, simply named Cherry Wheat (recipe to be posted soon). We were happy with our offerings, but what blew us away was people coming up to the table and saying, “So we heard about this Bee Sting …” Say wha?! Apparently our fellow brewers were sending folks our way, heaving praise on our little hybrid pale ale. Talk about an awesome feeling.

Parker samples the Bee Sting

Parker samples a Bee Sting as a friend looks on

And we surprised more than a few people with our Cherry Wheat. Typically you say “Cherry Wheat” and people shudder at the Robitussin-like memory of a bottle from Sam Adams. But our brew was far from that. Instead, it was light, wheaty and a balance of sweet and tart. Attendees were shocked and asked for seconds.

After sampling the beers of my fellow homebrewers throughout the night, I’m proud to say I was part of BeerCamp, and I’m pretty sure Ray would agree with me. Why at least half these brewers aren’t pro already floors me. What I was drinking that night was innovative and downright delicious.

Tom and the Big Spoon Brewery Gang

Tom (far left) and the rest of his Big Spoon Brewery crew

Tom, from Big Spoon Brewery, brought his Wobbly Bass Brown, Mmmmm Creamy Milk Stout—and for the lucky—some bottles of his Russian Imperial Stout brewed with coffee. We were blown away and super happy when he took the Brewer’s Choice Award at the end of the night. People’s Choice Awards went to MelloProto Brewing’s Blood Orange Berliner aka B.ö.B., Saint Benjamin Brewing Co.’s Transcontinental (a California Common or “steam” beer) and B WeeRd Brew D’s CHOCRILLA, a stout brewed with sarsaparilla.

The food was fantastic, the beer superb and the company we kept was excellent. I can’t wait until the next BeerCamp Philly event!

Last 3 photos courtesy of Ray who isn’t in any photos because he was too busy taking them!




BeerCamp Philly Preview 

Mel and Ray at the Beer Camp Philly BrewfestPhoto by the ever talented and lovely Marissa, who writes one of my favorite canning blogs, Food in Jars.

Yeah, I know, we disappeared again. Bad homebrewers. BUT, during those 2.5 months, we brewed 10 gallons of beer, which we served to fest goers on Saturday for the 2011 BeerCamp Philly event. We had an AMAZING time and served possibly the best rendition of our Bee Sting Ale to date. Ray and I were incredibly proud of our beers and our fellow homebrewers.

I owe you our newest recipe, the Cherry Wheat Ale, which we touted as “NOT Robitussin—OR Sam Adams Cherry Wheat.” People loved its light, tart flavor. Perfect for summer.

So stay tuned!





Extra Fancy Brown Ale Pretzel Caramels 

I’ve been getting my bake on a lot (check out my new venture, Cupcake Friday), so when I came across a recipe for Ale and Pretzel Soft Caramels from Sprinkle Bakes, I knew I had to try it with some of our Extra Fancy Brown Ale.

Extra Fancy Brown Ale Pretzel Caramels
(adapted from Sprinkle Bakes original recipe)
1 12 oz. bottle of Extra Fancy Brown Ale
2 cups sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup light corn syrup
1 8 oz. package pretzel rods, broken into 1 inch sections
Kosher or sea salt for light sprinkling
wax paper for wrapping caramels

In a small saucepan bring 1 cup of brown ale to a simmer and reduce to approximately 1/2 tbsp. This will take about 15-20 minutes and yield a concentrated ale flavoring. Set aside.

Butter a 13 x 9 inch pan and set aside. Combine remaining beer and all other ingredients except ale reduction in a heavy pot—I used an 8 quart stock pot to give the caramel plenty of room. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally.  Butter will melt and mixture will begin to boil.

Continue to cook until candy thermometer reaches 244 degrees, this will take about 30 minutes.  You can test your caramel in a bowl of ice water to check the consistency.  It should form a firm ball.

When the correct temperature has been reached, stir in the ale reduction and remove from heat.  Pour into prepared pan and top with pretzel bits. Sprinkle lightly with salt.

Cool for several hours or place in fridge until firm.  Remove caramel block from pan and turn pretzel-side up on a cutting board (if refrigerated, let caramel block warm up a little for easier cutting).  Cut around the pretzels into 1″ pieces.  Wrap caramels so they keep their shape.

Beer Pretzel CaramelsThis was my first time making caramel and it was pretty easy, though I don’t think I have true soft caramels—you have to hold them in your mouth a bit to get them to soften, but the flavor is nice. Not too sweet … I wonder if the brown ale helps with that at all?

As you can see in the photo to the right, I had a 9×13 brick of caramel with pretzels submerged. I had to do a bit of fighting to dislodge the caramel, then slowly but surely cut them into individual candies. Ray brought a container to IndyHall today, and I have a container for my coworkers, so it’ll be interesting to get their opinions on my confections.




Tasting #16 — Boris the Spider Chai Oatmeal Stout 

Boris the Spider Chai Oatmeal StoutCreepy, crawly, creepy, crawly, creepy creepy, crawly crawly … oh Boris the Spider.

Brewed about a month and a half before our wedding, Boris the Spider Chai Oatmeal Stout was to be a thick chai spice monster. However, in my opinion, I’m not thrilled with it. The body is too thin and there could be more chai spicy goodness going on (also, the ABV is a bit lower than expected, hitting 5.4%. I think this could be a much bigger beer). Nonetheless, Ray, Ryan and a number of other folks really enjoy Boris, which is a good thing.

Appearance: Opaque, reddish brown. Fluffy beige head.

Nose: Chocolate, banana, spices.

Taste: Chocolate. Fruity sweetness. A lingering hint of spicy bitterness. Cardamom really pops.

Mouthfeel: Light to medium bodied. Finishes very clean.

Overall: A really cool idea that played out nicely. The chai flavors really pop, especially the cardamom. I think I’d like to see the anise make a bolder statement, but other than that, I really like this.

Appearance: Thin beige head; deep brown with hints of ruby.

Nose: Chai spices, roast, a little woodiness.

Taste: Roasty sweetness—very, very, very dry, yet oddly refreshing; maybe a little estery from being in the guest bathroom, which suffers from fluctuating temperatures. Chai spice is balanced and not overwhelming; cardamom pops.

Mouthfeel: Light, dry and smooth.

Overall: A worthy experiment. If done again, I want a thicker, chewier mouthfeel and a bump up in chocolate notes. Currently, it’s too much like a dry stout. Maybe make it a milk stout so the creaminess plays up the spices, reflecting the traditional Indian beverage it’s based on.




Homebrewing 2010 — A Year in Retrospect 

Ray and Mel at GABF

Ray and Mel at GABF 2010

Another year winds down, but instead of wondering where the year went, I’m glad to see 2010 scoot its butt out the door. I’m ready to welcome 2011 and all it has to offer.

2010 was a quieter year for our homebrewing. Our wedding was in November 2009, so we took time off from brewing for that. Surprisingly, we only brewed twice in 2010: the Extra Fancy Brown Ale (which we have yet to review) and the  Bee Sting Ale, one of our favorite recipes from 2009. We also had friends over for a brew day, so they could experience what goes into making our favorite fermented beverage. We had an awesome time, and once we got the Bee Sting into the bottle and carbonated (yes, it took us 3.5 months to get the damn thing bottled), we knew we had a winner on our hands.

So why did we homebrew less? There were a number of factors.

I’m also a firm believer in not forcing myself to do something when I’m not feeling up to it. And in the earlier part of the year, I just wasn’t feeling like homebrewing and writing about it. But the spring arrived, we brewed the brown ale, then summer came, we brewed the Bee Sting, and as Ray got more and more involved with his first game, he had less time. So, it was up to me to take the reins of Bathtub Brewery, and I think it’s worked well.

Ray’s still here. He does all the tastings with me and sometimes even pops in with a video. And that works. We’re still a homebrewing team — I just do the writing now.

On top of that, I joined the Ladies of Craft Beer as a contributor, offering reviews of craft beer, homebrewing advice, cooking/baking with beer recipes and an occasional opinion piece now and then. It feels good to be part of a community of women teaching other women about craft beer.

Though 2010 may have been a quiet year for our homebrewing, it was anything but quiet in regard to the beer festivals we attended. We kicked the year off with the High Street Grill Winterfest, which was unfortunately crowded, cold and too short. But our friends Ryan and LeeAnne came with us and we had fun nonetheless.

In May, we made it back to one of our favorite fests, the The Brandywine Valley’s Craft Brewers Festival at Iron Hill in Media. The fest was great as always, and Ray even managed to get video of me snagging a sample of one of the two rare beers Iron Hill Media poured into the frenzied crowd (for the record, I managed to snag samples of both).

In June, we attended SAVOR with Ryan in tow. The beers were excellent, the food was meh, and now we have to decide if the festival is worth its $95 ticket price for 2011.

July saw us stumbling into the Royal Stumble with Ryan, LeeAnne and a whole horde of revelers. As always, the Stumble was excellent, and topped off by a few roller derby bouts.

In August, we sent a bottle of our Barleywine with the Dish Trip crew to have it delivered to Charlie at Harpoon Brewery in Boston. Apparently he liked it, a lot.

September was our busy month. Before leaving for Denver, I represented Sly Fox at Geraghty’s Fall Beer and Food Fest, seeing first hand what it was like to be behind the table at a fest. Then we hopped on a plane and did a crapload of amazing things in Denver, including attending our first GABF. Wow wow wow!

Earlier this month, Ray and I attended a Philly Food Bloggers Potluck, where we chatted with Amanda Hesser about homebewing, served her, Dave from Victory Beer and some of the guests our beer. To say our homebrews were well-received is an understatement.

Huh. Looking at this mammoth post, I guess you could say that we didn’t have that quiet of a year. We may have scaled back on our brewing, but we were out in full force participating in the craft beer community.

As for 2011, we already have a Dubbel on the docket — now we just need to write the recipe. We may never get back to brewing monthly, but I think we will get back to brewing when the creativity strikes. That’s not a bad thing.

Happy New Year!




Homebrews & Cupcakes for NYT Potluck With Amanda Hesser 

Amanda Hesser and The Essential New York Times Cook Book

Courtesy of Epicurious.com

This past Wednesday night, Ray and I attended The Essential New York Times Cookbook Philly Food Blogger Potluck and Book Signing, hosted by NYT food columnist and food52 founder Amanda Hesser, Audra Wolfe of Doris and Jilly Cook, Marisa McClellan of Food in Jars and Victory Brewing. Attendees were encouraged to bring their favorite dish from the NYT, whether it be the paper, a cookbook, or even the newest cookbook.

I selected a Devil’s Food Cake cupcake recipe to reflect my baking blog, MelBee Says…, but decided that I needed something to reflect Bathtub and my writings for the Ladies of Craft Beer. After checking with lovely PR gal extraordinaire Katarina that I wouldn’t be stepping on Victory’s toes, I decided to bring some of our homebrews.

A six-pack of this year’s Bee Sting and a bomber each of the Barleywine and Ginpel traveled alongside the cupcakes. And suffice to say, I think the homebrews were a bigger hit.

The first shocker of the night was when Amanda came over to chat a bit—I did my best to keep my cool, sipping Storm King and devouring Derek’s Sesame Noodles topped with peanuts. We discussed the dish, Ray’s peanut allergy, and then somehow got onto the topic of beer and homebrews. Ray and I chattered at her about the joys of homebrewing and she seemed genuinely interested, asking questions.

We also met Dave, online media guru for Victory, and got to talking about homebrewing and craft beer in general. It wasn’t long before bottles of Bee Sting were cracked open, red silo cups were partially filled and our own mini tasting began as other food bloggers, unaware of the huddle by the beer table, ate myriad NYT dishes and traded blog URLs. Dave was blown away by the Bee Sting, as was our newly-made homebrewing friend Christina. A few other party-goers became wise to the growing group of people around the drinks table and more cups were passed around.

Ray then cracked open the Ginpel. Our friend Jen requested that it’s aroma be made into a perfume. Others complimented the nose, and Ray realized that the bomber seemed more mellow than the 12 oz bottle we had shared for our tasting earlier in the week. More cups were passed around.
Tweet from Amanda Hesser Victory Beer Dave Tweet At one point, someone shepherded Amanda over, and a sample of Bee Sting was poured for her. She liked it, and even said so later on Twitter(!)

Dave also gave our homebrews a shoutout via Twitter the next day, but what he said before the end of the evening still rings in my ears. After trying the Barleywine and beginning to pack up his table, he told Ray and me that we had it in us to go pro. He complimented our skill and noted our passion for beer. I was probably grinning like an idiot, but it felt so good to be paid such a high compliment. What a night!




Tasting #15 — Ginpel 

Homebrewed tripel with gin aromaticsApproximately a year and 3 months ago, we brewed the Ginpel; a Frankenstein of a beer, inspired by Ray pouring a shot of Dogfishhead’s Jin into our homebrewed Tripel.

While we’ve been drinking the Ginpel, I always found it to be too strong in juniper and alcohol flavor. But today we decided it was time to crack one open, and I’m glad we did.

Unlike our usual tastings, there was only one 12 oz bottle of Ginpel in the fridge, so we split it (instead of the usual bottle apiece). It seems when Ray poured the beer, a bit of sediment got in my glass, which is reflected in the separated tasting notes below.

Appearance: Bright golden orange. Clear. Thin, white head.

Nose: Mainly juniper. Some citrus and spices as well, but the biggest note is the juniper.

Taste: Lots of juniper and fruity candy sweetness. Subtle clove, citrus, and rosemary notes.

Mouthfeel: Light to medium and very smooth.

Overall: Definitely a little heavy handed on the juniper, still evident even a year plus later. Can’t decide whether it nails the gin/tripel so well despite or because of the extra juniper. Worth doing again with less juniper, regardless, if only to let the other spices show themselves.

Ginpel tastingBOTTOM OF THE BOTTLE (Mel)
Appearance: Thin white head, deep amber in color, slightly hazy.

Nose: Very herbal. The juniper pops, and there are hints of sweetness and citrus.

Flavor: Herbs and spices dominate (makes me think this would be good to cook with). Very smooth. Alcohol taste has mellowed considerably—this does not taste like a 11.4% ABV beer.

Mouthfeel: Medium and smooth; a little dry.

Overall: I’m happy to see how much this beer has mellowed. The juniper still dominates, and the recipe could benefit from it being scaled back a bit. I think this is a beer that a straight-gin drinker would really enjoy.